TWO-RINGED CIR­CUSES

Smaller shows fill gap af­ter Rin­gling pulled up stakes

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY NI­COLE AULT

Re­ports of the death of the cir­cus are prov­ing ex­ag­ger­ated. There were plenty of obit­u­ar­ies when Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley, the lead­ing name in clas­sic clowns-ac­ro­bat­sand-lions cir­cus, shut down in May af­ter 146 years of op­er­a­tion, ha­rassed by an­i­mal rights groups and un­able to com­pete in an era sat­u­rated with eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble elec­tronic en­ter­tain­ment. But ex­perts say the cir­cus busi­ness is not dy­ing but evolv­ing. “We’re in a kind of cir­cus re­nais­sance in Amer­ica,” said Janet Davis, pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can stud­ies and history at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin who has writ­ten books on the cir­cus in­dus­try. Spec­tac­u­lar shows like Rin­gling Bros. are giv­ing way to smaller, one-ring per­for­mances, she said.

Ev­i­dence of that re­nais­sance is com­ing to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Next week, the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion will high­light roughly 20 of these smaller cir­cus per­for­mance groups — both pro­fes­sional and ed­u­ca­tional — at its 50th Folk­life Fes­ti­val, an out­door ex­hi­bi­tion that fea­tures a dif­fer­ent oc­cu­pa­tional com­mu­nity and tra­di­tions every year.

“Peo­ple are more in­ter­ested in get­ting closer [to the per­for­mance],” said James Deutsch, co-cu­ra­tor of the cir­cus arts pro­gram at the Smith­so­nian. “They want some­thing that is more up close and per­sonal, and that is ex­actly what the Folk­life Fes­ti­val is able to pro­vide.”

One of the fea­tured cir­cus groups, the UniverSoul Cir­cus, also opened a five-week run at FedEx Field in Lan­dover, Mary­land, on Thurs­day.

With a troupe of 70 per­form­ers and tra­di­tions like the “Soul Train Line” and a kids dance con­test in its one-ring show, UniverSoul is smaller than shows like Rin­gling, but it’s do­ing well: Its shows, per­formed to crowds of 2,200, of­ten sell out, said UniverSoul spokesman Hank Ernest.

“Peo­ple al­ways want to feel at home and feel like a fam­ily,” said Lucky Malatsi, UniverSoul’s ring­mas­ter. “As long as we stay rel­e­vant and trans­late that in a joy­ful man­ner but also have a mes­sage, we will be just fine.”

Founded by CEO Cedric Walker in 1994 as a cir­cus to bring more African-Amer­i­cans into the in­dus­try, UniverSoul now per­forms in more than 30 cities across the U.S., with per­form­ers from 11 coun­tries. Mr. Malatsi him­self is from South Africa, scouted as a 9-year-old street per­former 17 years ago by Mr. Walker.

Mr. Malatsi claims that UniverSoul’s di­ver­sity con­trib­utes to its suc­cess. UniverSoul is also unique, he said, be­cause it changes its show every year, draw­ing crowds who want to see some­thing dif­fer­ent from per­form­ers they like. This year’s 14-act show sports the new and the tra­di­tional, fea­tur­ing clowns and aeri­al­ists along with mo­tocross and Caribbean limbo dancers.

UniverSoul may not look like Rin­gling Bros., but that’s OK, said Ms. Davis. Rin­gling em­pha­sized the spec­tac­u­lar — py­rotech­nics and “tech­no­log­i­cal wiz­ardry” — but not so much the in­di­vid­ual per­former. Newer, smaller shows are fo­cus­ing on cen­turies-old ac­ro­batic arts and the abil­ity of a per­former to defy physics — which is what truly de­fines a cir­cus, she said.

Def­i­ni­tion is at the heart of the prob­lem: Peo­ple think of Rin­gling when they hear “cir­cus,” but that’s not the way a cir­cus has to be, said Adam Wool­ley, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Cir­cus Now, a non­profit group ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing the cir­cus in­dus­try and ed­u­ca­tion.

“The truth is that Rin­gling has been just a part of the pic­ture of the cir­cus in­dus­try in Amer­ica since the ’80s,” said Mr. Wool­ley, not­ing that a cir­cus can be a one-ring ac­ro­batic show or a grand the­atri­cal per­for­mance by Cirque du Soleil, the gi­ant Cana­dian en­ter­tain­ment com­pany.

Shana Kennedy, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Philadel­phia School of Cir­cus Arts, said one of the great­est signs of the in­dus­try’s per­sis­tence is the soar­ing num­ber of cir­cus arts schools, with at least 200 around the coun­try.

But the in­dus­try still faces chal­lenges. The main prob­lem in the U.S. is lack of aware­ness, Ms. Kennedy said. While Euro­pean and Cana­dian com­pa­nies re­ceive gov­ern­ment grants, U.S. cir­cus schools are largely still un­rec­og­nized and don’t have diploma pro­grams.

Cir­cuses also need to reach out more to the public, said Paul Archer, sec­re­tary of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Cir­cus Pro­pri­etors of Great Bri­tain. Peo­ple are too busy to take time for a cir­cus un­less they know well in ad­vance that it’s com­ing and that it will give them what they want, he said.

Ul­ti­mately, Rin­gling’s clo­sure is no cause for con­cern for the in­dus­try, said Mr. Archer.

“The cir­cus can sur­vive, and it will sur­vive,” he said. “As long as new gen­er­a­tions come in, there will be cir­cuses.”

PHO­TOS BY UNIVERSOUL CIR­CUS

De­spite Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley end­ing its 146-year run, smaller cir­cus tours are now fill­ing in the void left by the show’s end, in­clud­ing UniverSoul Cir­cus, which raised the cur­tain on a five-week run at FedEx Field in Lan­dover, Mary­land, Thurs­day.

The Smith­so­nian will high­light 20 smaller cir­cus groups as part of its 50th Folk­life Fes­ti­val, an out­door ex­hi­bi­tion that each year high­lights a dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sion. The event be­gins June 29.

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